Book Review: Nightwise by R.S. Belcher
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of Nightwise
Publisher: Tor (8/18/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
It has been a few years since I last read R.S. Belcher’s The Six Gun Tarot, but I remember his distinctively imaginative style and vivid prose well. Now he brings his unique brand of gritty dark magic out of the Old West and into urban fantasy, taking readers off the beaten track into a world of the occult as seen through the lens of a classic noir mystery.
Laytham Ballard is the star of this show, a middle-aged and self-professed redneck wizard with long hair and a multiple-pack-a-day-smoking habit. His appearances and inclinations notwithstanding, Laytham’s actually something of a big deal in magical circles. At the tender age of ten, he performed his first act of necromancy. His achievements have only grown since, though his early struggles and some of the horrible things he’s seen have left a mark on his soul. Now he’s haunted by the past, and the burden of his experiences have made him into a rather cynical bastard.
But cynical bastard or not, Laytham is determined to honor a promise he made to a dear and dying friend. His task sets him on the trail of Dusan Slorzack, a Serbian war criminal responsible for numerous acts of atrocity. In spite of Laytham’s efforts, his hunt is made difficult by the fact that his quarry is an extremely powerful wizard with friends in very high places, which has helped him disappear off the grid while wiping away all clues to his whereabouts. Locating and destroying Slorzack will force Laytham to make some tough choices and pull out every trick in the book, but luckily, our protagonist has some talented allies of his own.
If you’re looking for an urban fantasy that feels fresh and doesn’t feel like it follows the usual formula, then Nightwise is definitely going to be up your alley. Belcher has taken the genre and transformed it, so that at the heart of this novel readers will still find the themes we know and love, but on the whole it is a different beast entirely. Take the main character, for example. Cynical and narcissistic trash-talking protagonists are nothing new, but I guarantee you’ve never known one quite like Laytham Ballard. He’ll go to great lengths to try and convince you that he’s a monster, an anti-hero, but I wasn’t fooled. It’s true you might need to dig a little deeper to find his conscience, but I assure you it’s there.
Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Laytham’s capacity for destruction and his willingness to do some truly terrible things. In many ways, his mind is still that of a child’s, an angsty and cocksure teenager suffering from delusions of grandeur and believing he is smarter than he really is. He also recognizes when something is wrong, but would not hesitate to do it again and again as long as it would help him achieve his aims. It seems that age has not brought Laytham much wisdom or maturity, and it’s easy to see why his attitude will likely not win him many fans.
Instead of turning me off though, Laytham’s twisted psyche made him even more intriguing; in my eyes, he was an enigma simply begging to be unraveled. It made the character painfully fallible. And painfully human. That Laytham is a powerful wizard is also something no one can deny, but perversely, I also wanted to see just how far he would go and what he would be willing to do if push came to shove. Belcher, perhaps recognizing that same potential in his protagonist, obliged me by showing me exactly what would happen. Nightwise is a darkly suspenseful tale, often infused with brutal violence and freaky action, and we get to see exactly what Laytham Ballard is capable of, both at his best and at his worst.
Nightwise exemplifies why I enjoy reading dark urban fantasy, and I also thought the story had an interesting take on secret societies and conspiracy theories. Belcher’s prose is a genuinely unique blend of piercing clarity and staccato bleakness, working hand in hand with his cutting humor to provide the driving force behind this atmospheric and fast-paced, no-nonsense novel. The weakest part of this book was unfortunately its ending, where I felt the plot veered wildly off its tracks. The conclusion also came across too rushed and rather inadequate, especially when compared to the rest of the story which was richly detailed and developed.
That stumbling block aside though, I had myself a great time with this novel. Nightwise is a dark and gritty urban fantasy, but it’s nonetheless a gem that shines out from the rest. With this book, R.S. Belcher has also shown himself to be a talented and versatile author, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.